What to Do About Millennials?

by Margaret Ambrose

The answer to the question ‘What to do about Millennials?’ in terms of legal research instruction may, in fact, be nothing – or nothing that is specific to Millennials. Let me be clear, trends towards experiential learning, collaborative learning, understandings of different learning and communication styles, etc. should be embraced. This post will not argue that these trends should be reversed or that they don’t have a place in legal research instruction.


According to a new IBM study, Millennials are actually less likely to favor prizes than Gen X. (Credit: IBM)

What this post does argue, however, is that any conceptualizations of ‘Millennials’ does not occur in a vacuum and that current trends in teaching pedagogy (or management techniques) that purport to address the so-called attributes of Millennials have merit that is independent of the Millennial phenomenon.

Starting at the beginning – who are Millennials?  This question is actually harder to answer than it first might seem.  An article in The Atlantic by Phillip Bump does a pretty good job of breaking it down (there is even a nifty chart). My favorite quote is from a Census Bureau representative who, when asked for a concrete definition of Millennials, is quoted as saying “history isn’t so punctuated” – meaning while it made sense to classify the Baby Boomers as a generation due to the fact that there was an observable time-frame with specific characteristics (i.e. WWII ended) – Millennials don’t have a similar observable time-frame with specific characteristics. The best definition is, therefore, going back to the two men who coined the term: Neil Howe and William Strauss defined the time period for Millennials as those born between 1982 and 2004.


According to a new IBM study, Millennials actually are less likely than older generations to use their personal social media accounts for business purposes. (Credit: IBM)

As for defining characteristics of Millennials, as the same Census Bureau representative pointed out – while the rise in technology and social media is certainly a factor – it did not have the same power to define a generation in the way that the end WWII did with Baby Boomers.  The media, however, loves definitions and creating identities that may or may not exist. The result is a confusing barrage of articles about so-called characteristics of Millennials.

Take for example, this article from The Atlantic that observes and reinforces the stereotype of Millennials living in their parents’ basements. Followed by this other Atlantic article a mere three days later busting the myth about the same stereotype.

Then there is of course this Time article classifying Millennials as the ‘Me Me Me Generation’ followed by a myriad of articles defending Millennials  (US News, World Economic Forum, Forbes, Muse, Economic Policy Institute).


According to a new IBM study, Millennials value others’ input, but are no more likely to seek advice when making work decisions than Gen X. (Credit:IBM)

At the end of the day, one is left with a confusing array of conflicting theories and statistics purportedly attempting to forge an identity for Millennials that may not exist in a way that is helpful to the discussion of legal research instruction. If there is a takeaway, it is that ‘Millennial’ is an amorphous concept that includes a startling diverse array of individuals who are coming to the classroom with a variety of needs and backgrounds.

Add to this the fact that previous generations would likely have benefited from ‘new’ trends in teaching pedagogies, and it makes even less sense to ascribe instructional trends to the needs of just Millennials.

Long story short – the question ‘What to do about Millennials?’ may be fundamentally flawed.  A better question might be ‘how to do we update what we are currently doing to prepare students for a future in a legal profession that is changing and unknown?’


About margaret.jane.ambrose

I work as a Access & Research Services Librarian at Cornell Law. I am also a Board Member of ALLUNY.
This entry was posted in Issues in Law Librarianship, Legal Research Instruction, Teaching (general) and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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